Tag Archives: landscape

People and the landscape

There’s something decidedly interesting about spending time with people in a landscape. I have a nearby barrow that I love dearly, and at times in the past I’ve taken people to it and spent time with them, there. It’s a telling activity. There were some disappointments with people who clearly had no sense of sacredness or significance even though I’d tried to tell them something of how I felt.

I learn a lot about people by seeing how they respond to the land. The people who see, and feel, who show signs of awe and wonder are always the best people to walk with. Not people who do performance responses, heavy on the drama and announcing how sensitive they are to special places… that becomes exhausting all too quickly. Quiet wonder and thoughtful reverence are the things I like most in other people.

For many people, the landscape is just another commodity to consume. They want the dramatic, the picturesque, the pleasing and unless that’s in front of them they tend towards complacency. For some people, the landscape is just a background for selfies, for performance, or a place to go and have a conversation. I see people out and about who show every sign of walking out of guilt, or some feeling of obligation to family and waistline. They tend to show up on Sunday afternoons. These are ways of being outdoors that miss so much of what’s good.

Of course wherever we go we can only be ourselves. I think it’s good to ask what we bring with us, though. How much noise, opinion, self importance or need for attention do we bring with us when we head into a landscape? Are we using a place for recreation, or are we trying to connect with it?


Time and the living landscape

It always perplexes me when I see Pagans expressing the idea that we should aspire to live in the moment with no reference to the past or the future. Or even when it’s offered as a temporary goal for meditation. To be Pagan is to connect with nature, and when you do that, every moment – surely? – is held in the context of the wheel of the year. It makes even less sense when considered in terms of the landscape.

History is always present in a landscape, whether it is immediately visible or not. The underlying geology is part of the history of the planet itself. The soil is made up from the remains of those who have lived here before, layered beneath your feet, often holding bones, objects and memories amongst the broken down organic matter.

If you honour the ancestors, it makes no sense to focus only on the present. It does however make a great deal of sense to be alert to the ways in which the ancestors of a place are always with us in that place. Their actions, their living and dying are part of what makes a place how it now is. We might not see every influence, but it’s good to look for them and to honour the way in which their lives shape the present moment.

What we do in the present moment has consequences for the future. Being too focused on the present can allow us to ignore the future – and given how destructive our species is, this is irresponsible at best. What we do to our landscape today informs what will survive there in years to come. We have a responsibility to consider the future whenever we interact with the land.

Landscape isn’t just pretty bits of nature, either. You live and work in a landscape, even if there is a lot of tarmac involved. Perceiving the landscape in our urban environments often requires bringing a sense of history with us.

It is always good to be present to what is around us. It’s also important to remember that a landscape is not something that exists only in the present moment. The existence of a landscape is due to its history, to layers of rock and soil built up over time, to human actions, and non-human actions. The landscape holds the past, making it present to us. The land is time made solid. If we ignore that aspect of the land itself in the desire to be ‘purely in the moment’ we miss important aspects of existence.


Wild orchids

My experience of the wheel of the year is not about celebrating festivals. What I most like to engage with are the seasonal events in my local landscape – the timing of which varies somewhat from year to year. Over time, I’ve built up an understanding of how the seasons occur in the local landscape, and there are certain things that are particularly important to me.

One of those things is getting to see the wild orchids. The hill nearest my home usually has a lot of orchids on it at this time of year. I can’t claim any confidence around telling the pinky purple ones apart. I love the bee orchids especially, and I’ve seen half a dozen this year, which is amazing.

The photo doesn’t really do justice to the profusion out there at the moment.


Living Legends

In the UK we have substantial legal protections for historic sites. If you buy a listed building, you have responsibilities to maintain it appropriately. If you buy a piece of land with an ancient tree on it, there will be no such protections in place for that tree.

When it comes to protecting features in the landscape, we tend to protect sites deemed to be of historical significance – which means sites of human activity. The landscapes we protect tend to be both dramatic and apparently pristine – I have a lot of issues around this because our protected landscapes are often dramatic land shapes that have been stripped of life. These are places devoid of trees, undergrowth and wild beings, maintained in a state of visual drama for the human gaze. Anything with an urban aspect gets little protection.

It would help considerably if we had more protection in place for ancient trees. It would be good if we could undertake to value the history in our landscapes without it having to be so human-centric.

The Woodland Trust has a Living Legends campaign under way. Most of our oldest trees have few legal protections so there is petitioning under way to try and persuade the Government to grant our oldest and most important trees more robust protections, in line with heritage sites, buildings and protected species. The campaign seeks to emphasise tree protection through policy and legal measures, as well as enabling those who manage our most important trees to care for them more effectively. More information, and the petition, can be found here


Winter Light

The place I live is made up of hills and valleys. The town of Stroud nestles (mostly) between the hills, with villages occupying other valleys. This place was carved out of the limestone by water working its way down to meet the Severn.

In winter, the sun doesn’t clear the hills much in some places. I have a friend whose home gets no direct sunlight at this time of year. For those on the hilltops there is still plenty of light, but also a lot of wind. Down in the valleys, where I live, it is a lot more sheltered, but also gloomier. 

I don’t experience the solstice as having any great impact. For me, the dark part of the year starts in early December and continues well into January. My sense of the light and the season has everything to do with how I experience light – and the absence of it – in my own home and that in turn has everything to do with where I live in relation to the hills.

I think it’s important to be specific and personal in our relationships with the natural world. Thinking about ‘nature’ as some sort of vague abstract won’t give you much. It’s easy to pay lip service to a vague idea, but a real relationship calls for specifics. 

How does the wheel of the year turn for you? What are your personal experiences of the seasons? What happens where you live?


Water in the landscape

While we haven’t had heavy rain here for a while now, there’s a lot of water in the landscape still. The rivers and streams are fast flowing and high in their banks. Streams that only exist when it’s wet are very present, and there are a number of new springs that I’ve seen, and probably many more that I haven’t. The odds are many of those will disappear, but there’s no knowing when.

As I live on limestone, the secret, underground life of water is very much part of the landscape. The spring line on the hills informs where the villages are and where the oldest houses were built. With the weather so unpredictable and so much more heavy rain than is normal, springs can pop up all over the place. I love seeing them, and the arrival of a new one is exciting to me – but that may be in no small part because I don’t live close against a hill and they aren’t in my foundations. I have no idea how big an issue that might be for people locally.

Yesterday I saw a field that had previously had a lot of standing water on it. It’s low lying, it should be a flood meadow and I wonder about its history. Perhaps once it was proper wetland, and carried water through more of the year. We’ve lost so much wetland from the UK, and I often wonder where it was and how differently the landscape would have looked with more of those watery, liminal places.


Tiny Pilgrimages

Up until last year, what pilgrimage meant to me was a really epic walk. An all day sort of effort that would bring me a feeling of deep connection with the landscape, probably coupled with feelings of euphoria.

My ability to handle longer walks has largely gone. There have been a lot of days in the last year when I’ve not made it outside my home. Often I get about twenty minutes or so before the low blood pressure makes me too dizzy to continue. Hills are currently beyond me. Longer walks of a few miles leave me exhausted.

When I started thinking about pilgrimage, I knew I didn’t want to write something abelist and excluding. I wanted to explore the topic in a way that would work for people with fewer options. But, I also didn’t really know what that might mean. I had assumed you could just do this kind of thing at the level that works for you.

That’s not been my experience.

It is difficult to make a very small walk seem like an act of pilgrimage. Even if it takes as much out of me as the bigger ones used to. Even if it is a really hard slog. The major issue is time. On a longer walk I get time to really connect with the land, the sky, the day. I’ll have more wildlife encounters. If I’m only outside for half an hour, I see less, I experience less and the emotional impact is smaller. When walking is a struggle, the struggle itself becomes the dominant experience, not the opportunity for connecting with the landscape. Pain and dizziness are obstacles to connecting.

I’m coming to the conclusion that time spent on this is more important than how far you go. In the warmer part of the year I should be able to sit and rest more during outdoors time, and this will increase how long I can spend outside. Will that be enough? I think it could be, but I don’t know.

At this point the whole experience has me asking a lot of questions about what pilgrimage is for me, and what it means and what makes it powerful. I’m also asking a lot of questions about what scope there is for helpfully reflecting on a topic to the benefit of people whose experiences are radically different from your own.


Druidry and Identity

Druidry gives me a context for my sense of self. It teaches me that I am not separate from nature. I am part of the landscape I live in, and that landscape is also part of me. I am influenced not only by my ancestors of blood, but also by the ancestors who were in this landscape before me. I have chosen my ancestors of tradition – either as specific individuals, or as part of the traditions I engage with. This all contributes to my sense of self.

From the historical/Celtic side of Druidry I am gifted the importance of creativity, honour, courage and loyalty. I have done my best to weave these attributes into who I am, by making them part of how I do things. From the spiritual side of Druidry I get the call to service, the practice of gratitude, and honouring the natural world in my everyday life. Animism informs how I interact with the world.

I’ve been exploring Druidry for nearly two decades now, and a lot of it is in me and has become part of who I am. It’s also given me the focus to work on unpicking my actual self from the consequences of abuse, from ancestral wounding, family stories and the impact of the culture I live in. I have a lot of work to do still. Trying to find my authentic self amidst conditioning, cultural training, societal pressures, internalised patriarchy and colonialism…

This year has done an array of things to my sense of self. I’ve been able to test things that were only ever ideas before, and have found that who I thought I might be in the right context, is real. I’ve reclaimed my intuition and some sense of enchantment. I’ve gone back to beliefs that I had lost. I’ve become more aware of myself as someone with some very specific intellectual needs and have started trying to work out how to deal with that. I’m also having aspects of my sense of self knocked about by early stages of the menopause, by pain, stiffness, exhaustion and body challenges. I had my heart broken in a thorough, self altering sort of way and I still don’t know how to move past that or who I am in face of it.

Identity is not a fixed thing. We grow and change all the time – and much like trees, we put down our rings of memory for each year and grow, and sometimes we make stags heads and die back. We are cut down, and re-sprout from whatever is left. Or don’t. One thing that Druidry has certainly taught me is that I am a lot more able to be kind to myself if I think of myself as being like a tree.


Nature, silence and quiet

Silence isn’t especially natural. In most places where there is life, water or wind, there will be sound – deep caves may be silent, and there may be silence in very thick fog, but that’s about it. However, in an insulated human home, it can be truly silent. I find this disconcerting, and it is always an issue for me at the point in the year when I have to close windows at night. Sometimes I can still hear the owls, but I have to be incredibly quiet and paying attention.

Nature tends to offer us quiet and subtle soundscapes. Some things are loud and raucous – seagulls, high winds, fox songs… but many wild things are subtle and easily missed. For me, the soundscape is as much a part of the experience of being outside as the visual appearance of the landscape is. Unfortunately, a lot of people miss out on this – interested in the picturesque, but oblivious to a lot of what is around them. I say this with confidence having observed other people out walking in parks and at beauty spots.

I’m always amazed by people who go out into ‘nature’ and are then so busy with themselves that they don’t seem to see, and most assuredly cannot hear whatever is around them. People for whom landscape is aerobic exercise, parental guilt appeased, or post-lunch attempts at virtue. I see them not seeing the wild things – where I have paused for a buzzard, raven or deer and they walk on by with no sense of what’s looking at them.

When you talk loudly with other humans, the sounds of the landscape are drowned out. The subtle tinkle of a small stream. The rustle of small rodents in the undergrowth. The calls of small birds – and larger ones. Sound is often the best clue for spotting wild beings and the person intent on a good conversation won’t pick up these clues. What frustrates me is the number of people who are really loud in beautiful places, not just wiping out their own scope for hearing anything other than their own voices, but filling the landscape with their banality. Perhaps they can’t hear how quiet it is. Perhaps the quiet unsettles them, so they fill it with noise. There’s nothing quite like walking in a beautiful place and having the landscape filled with someone’s loud and wholly tedious conversation about some TV show.

At this time of year, if you are quiet, you can hear the leaves falling. You can hear them as they brush against other leaves on the way down. You can hear them as they meet the undergrowth, or land gently on the earth. It is a soft, subtle sound, and it is beautiful, and enchanting, and not available when people are talking loudly. Life is full of such opportunities for small beauty and magic, but often we’re too busy talking over it to even notice.


Druidry, walking, and not walking

Walking is my primary mode of transport and is also how I engage with the natural world and the seasons. It’s a major part of how I exercise, and a key strategy for managing my mental health. As a consequence, not being able to walk is a bit of a disaster. There’s been a lot of that this year, and in the last six weeks or so it has been a massive problem.

Usually the limits on my walking come from pain, stiffness and lack of energy. I’m used to having days when I can’t do much, and fitting what I need to do around what’s possible. However, I’ve had a bout of very low blood pressure (for reasons) and it’s made walking really hard. I haven’t been able to get up hills, I’ve been able to manage twenty minutes at most, and I’ve felt awful. I’m aware that for a lot of people, twenty minutes would be a good amount of walking, but with the role walking plays in my life, not being able to walk for a few hours at a time is a real problem.

It’s meant I’ve had very little access to the landscape. Places I find spiritually nourishing – especially the hilltops – have been unavailable to me. If I had a garden, I could develop a spiritually nourishing outdoors space closer to home – but currently I can’t do that.

I’m lucky in that the underlying causes of this problem have been dealt with, and I should be able to recover and rebuild my strength and stamina. Not everyone who has a bodily crisis gets to do that afterwards. Many people live with sorely limiting conditions.

This experience has taught me that there is nothing I can do inside my flat that does for me what getting outside for long hours at a time does for me. My Druidry is so very much about my relationship with my immediate landscape. Much of the time that’s quite an understated presence – I do think about my connection with land and spirits of place whenever I am out, but that’s often so normal to me that in some ways I don’t notice it. Absence is a great teacher, and what I’ve not been able to do has taught me about what I need to do.

There’s an interesting balance around internalising things and losing sight of them. With any spiritual practice, you want to embed it so deeply in your life that it is your life. But when you do that you can stop noticing that it’s there, which is problematic. This in turn brings me to consider the usefulness of deliberate spiritual action for reminding us of our spiritual lives, and how necessary it may be to have things that aren’t so deeply embedded that they become invisible. This might mean I need to make a labyrinth once I’m back in shape. That’s a good jolt out of everydayness.

I certainly need to look at what I can do with my Druidry that is real and immediate to me, and soul satisfying, and not so dependent on being able to walk for a couple of hours. Alongside this, I have a lot of practical work to do rebuilding body strength and stamina, getting my heart fitter again, and getting back up the hills. I’ve come to understand in recent years that taking care of my body is a necessary consideration for how I do my Druidry – my body is where I experience everything else, and if I don’t keep it well and fit, I can’t get out there and do anything else. I’m very glad to have at least some options around improving wellness and fitness.